Feedback

Well, that was a bit of a pause. My pencil broke.

Over the past six months, I’ve spent a fair bit of time splitting wood. It’s an amazingly satisfying process. You start out with a haphazard mound of logs, relatively disordered and occupying part of the driveway, and you end up with a lot of lovely burnable pieces, stacked neatly in one of the bays of the woodshed. It’s all about bringing control to the chaos and entropy of nature. Or something.

Of course there are other things involved in making firewood. In my case, my parents battered little pickup truck, which is always fun to rattle around the island. Also, an electric splitter and some comfortable work gloves, one or two hard-working chucks (which sit between the splitter’s ram and the log being cleaved), and the miasma of freshly applied sunblock. A user’s manual, dipstick, oil pan, fresh quart, and telephone call to RYOBI technical support (in Alabama, it sounded like). An extension cord, water breaks, a couple of handmade saw horses with a plank across them, a marvelously maneuverable wheelbarrow, and a father who periodically helps direct, split, or stack.

Most of all—and the key feature of what makes splitting wood so satisfying—there is much very immediate feedback. Aside from the visual feedback of the mound-to-woodshed transition (a wonderful net effect), each log continually communicates throughout the splitting process. It tells you what is happening; it tells you what to do next. Fir logs tell you they have great transverse knots in them when they make the splitter grind and grouse and ultimately stop hydraulically moving forward. Or, alternately, they tell you about grain and lignin and angles when they sweetly sandwich apart, tumbling gently into your gloved hands like a newborn. An alder log brags to you about its species’ indefatigability when you pick it up from the pile it has been sitting in for a week or so, and it shows new green shoots popping up from where smaller branches were removed during bucking up. It has already become a nurse log, sort of. Arbutus trumpets its magnificent structural intensity and latent energy when logs bang! apart into two twisty halves, jumping off the splitter rail and trying to take your eye out. Even better, they tell you how much the fleshy fiber of a log has in common with the meaty tissues of a leg of lamb.

The relationship between splitter (human), splitter (mechanical), and splittee (woodish) is one of constant and cyclical feedback. It is wonderful. It feels good, trusting, meaningful. It is what happens when you learn to listen differently and recognize how much you are being told. It tells you things about yourself, too, and all the things around you. It is peaceful and productive.

Afterwards, there is the wood. There is the human, too, with some residual aches in his muscles and quiet pleasure in his mind. His heart is calm, restful. His wrists, unused to bearing clumsy weights at odd angles, are a little creaky. He has a bruise just above his right hip, where he rested too many over-large logs.

Feedback is fantastically important. In all its many forms, feedback makes us feel connected, witnessed, aware, sensitive, valued. Perhaps most importantly, it tells us how to keep moving forward, or whether to change direction, shift our footing, increase momentum, or slow down. Sometimes feedback suggests that we stop and remain still. All around us, the systems of the world give us feedback—mostly—so that we don’t become paralyzed with unknowing or damage ourselves and those around us. Really well designed things—building tools, websites, kitchen appliances, clothing—give us feedback as we interact with them. The people who designed them know this is important for us to keep using them; it’s just good sense if you want someone to engage with what you have made.

All sorts of things have feedback built into them, often without our being totally aware of it, allowing for success in our endeavours. A cake in an oven sends out smells and changes color, telling us: Put on those mitts and get ready to test me. An approaching pedestrian glances up and adjusts her trajectory, saying, No body check for you today, mister! (…and the opposite, too.) A dog on his leash tugs back as you mindlessly meander onwards, implying: No, but really! the last one! who peed here? was really REALLY interesting! you gotta come over here! and smell this! A weirdly inappropriate photo appears on screen, confirming: You are a clickbait dupe.

And then, more and more frequently, there are those things that don’t come with feedback.

Over those same six months of very satisfying wood splitting, I have also, unsatisfyingly, been getting a lot of rejection letters in response to job applications. It was rejection season, after all. I have also gotten a lot of silence. As is common, no-thanks letters contain very little in the way of feedback. Nothing particularly personal or relevant to what I said in my materials—in my cover letters, CVs, research synopses, teaching philosophies, art documentation. Nothing particularly relevant about the interview process I was not admitted to. Nothing that might promote questions about equality or employment practices. Nothing that might be actionable if fairness is not perceived. Nothing much at all.

A series of relatively identically worded rejections for part-time teaching jobs at one institution were intriguing (mildly) because of the extraordinary lack of care with which they were printed. One version came from a department chair who ordinarily attends to the normative conventions of power that produce inequity in the world. In this case, the ten-point typeface occupied the upper fourth of the form letter, and the photocopied signature hovered a bit lower. The whole thing was a bit askew on the page. It told me that hiring decisions are based on seniority, per the part-time faculty agreement. (Why bother using grammar or creativity in one’s application materials, then?) Much the same wording appeared on a PDF version that was emailed to me from another department. The body text of the email said something to the effect of: Please see the attached PDF for the decision of the part-time hiring committee. It was oddly coy. Below that, the sender (the department assistant) had closed with the salutation, “Cheers!”, followed by her email signature. Cheers? Sorry, but that’s just dumb and rude. Yay, you didn’t get the position—rock on, loser!

Yes, I have felt kind of sour and annoyed this summer, because it gets hard to be turned down over and over. We applicants spend hours and hours of time to write thoughtful letters and teaching philosophy statements that we believe in—not to mention a fair wad of cash to print out color copies of our art documentation (yep, there are still paper-based and mailed job applications in 2017!) And the response in an emailed pffftt! or an ill-designed and badly printed form letter in the mailbox.

But beyond the mundanity of being rejected, my greater sadness is how much this process has made me sensitive to the lack of feedback that we seem to be giving each other these days, whether in job applications or dating apps, text messages or published texts. Are we really so terribly busy? Do we really not care about the effects of this inattention? Does meaningful feedback open us up to vulnerability? Maybe.

A side effect, it seems to me, is that not getting (or giving) feedback might be breeding less and less desire to initiate a communicative act with any real stakes in the first place. So we woof and poke on Scruff and Facebook, rather than saying I like your hair style and profile comment about multiracial barber shops. We tap out emojis and ???s in WhatsApp and on page proofs, rather than using our fucking words and getting a little messy with our feelings. Occasionally, the world does respond to an action or a tweet, and for whatever set of reasons, someone’s effort gets massive feedback. But to the majority of our day-to-day attempts, we get… crickets. And then the sound of blood pounding in our ears, the neighbor’s air conditioner inexorably kicking on, and the cold whisper of creeping despondency.

I by no means need to be told that I am fabulous every time I put something out into the world, and I don’t expect copious notes from every ur-employer who doesn’t want my particular skill set. Far from it—a deluge of too-much-information is equally unwelcome. Rather, I’d like to hear that delicious crrraackk! of a successful split a bit more often. I’d be equally happy with a gnarly ggrrrrr.., one that tells me to jump out of the way, to press on, or to take a step back and try again from a new angle. I want and need those sensory cues and quick interpretations that keep me engaged with doing and feeling, and with the things around me—whether it’s a log, a job hunt, or a process of making meaning and value in the world. I want feedback. I think we all do.

photo: Helena Spector